German Beer Law

Though it seems as if a new microbrew opens in North Carolina almost every week (there are 79 licensed microbreweries in the state now), and craft beer brewing is all the rage (look at the seasonal beers the major brands are brewing), most of us know very little about beer. 

So, grab a seat and cold one. Here’s to a little beer learning.

The honor of inventing beer actually goes to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (now Southern Iraq). They started brewing beer about 10,000 years ago, about the time humans started to transition from hunting and gathering and settle down to farm; grow crops and raise animals, and organize into communities. Not only did all that probably make people thirsty but it also created the need for a supply of something to drink that was not contaminated. It was from here that brewing culture spread to the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Egyptians and Romans, eventually making its way north to Germany.

The Germans were probably the first Europeans to brew beer, starting between 2000 and 700 years ago, according to the German Beer Institute, and eventually a law was passed concerning the production of beer in Germany. 

Originally, the 1487 German Beer Purity Law mandated the only ingredients that could be used were water, barley and hops. Beer makers would crumble half-baked loaves of bread with water and leave it to sit open and stir. 

Have you realized what’s missing? That’s right, yeast! It’s the most important raw material for making any alcoholic beverage. The single-cell organism is responsible for fermentation, which is the conversion by yeast of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.  As the yeast “eats” (or metabolizes) the sugar, it releases alcohol. You know what that does. The process also produces carbon dioxide, which makes beer bubbly.

The funny thing is, although people had been brewing for centuries, nobody quite understood what yeast did until Louis Pasteur discovered microbial fermentation in the mid 19th century. Yeast was considered a by-product of brewing, not the primary agent of the process. The story goes that brewers would take sediment from the last batch of beer and then add it to the new mix. That would usually contain enough yeast to begin the fermentation process. If none of the sediment was available for use, brewers would leave the mix of bread and water to sit in open vats until airborne yeast would settle in and start the brewing.

Once the role of yeast was understood, the old German Beer Purity Law was replaced by the Provisional German Beer Law, which allows for yeast, malt, water, hops and sugar. The law remained in effect for hundreds of years. However, in 1987, thanks to the global economy, the creation of the Euro zone, and international trade, the European Court of Justice lifted the law, ruling in favor of brewers in other counties, so that anything allowed in other foods could be used in beer. Those brewers had complained the German law was restricting trade. However, the ruling only applies to imported beer. Beer brewed in Germany must still abide by it. Many brewers, in Germany, America, and other countries still say they abide by the law for marketing reasons.

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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